The Science of Successful Learning

Monday, April 21st, 2014

Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel summarize the science of successful learning — which, in modern Internet fashion, garners the headline, Ditch the 10,000 hour rule! Why Malcolm Gladwell’s famous advice falls short.

Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule is often mischaracterized. First, it’s not Malcolm Gladwell’s rule; he simply popularized the work of Ericsson et al. Second, the rule is not that 10,000 hours of practice will guaranty mastery of a skill; it’s that those who had mastered a skill had spent an average of 10,000 hours in deliberate practice, often on their own, while second-tier experts had spent their time playing their instrument (or whatever) in not-so-deliberate practice.

So, that 10,000-hour cut-off isn’t hard and fast.

Anyway, the science of successful learning suggests that many popular training tactics improve performance in the very short term while reducing the amount of learning over the long term. So, if you practice the exact same thing, over and over, in dedicated training sessions, you will see clear improvement from the start of each session to the end of each session — at least until you get tired and bored — but you’ll improve less than if you if interleaved multiple skills into each session, spaced out your training, varied each challenge a bit, and so on.

Robin Hanson doesn’t see modern teaching methods as a mere misunderstanding of the science of successful learning:

If school’s purpose were to develop skills, we’d teach differently.


So, a good test of a theory of school is: how long do you predict it will take teachers to learn this lesson? The article above talks about how many coaches have learned this lesson, plausibly because they really do want to win games, and face strong competitive pressures.

If you think the main function of schools is something other than learning, you might think it could take a very long time before schools adopt these practices. If you think the main function of schools is learning, but that public schools face much weaker pressures to be efficient that private schools, you might predict that private schools will adopt this much faster. If you think public schools are effective at adopting better approaches, you might predict that they adopt these quickly.

Activities and Programs that Improve Children’s Executive Functions

Monday, April 21st, 2014

Executive functions — such as reasoning, working memory, and self-control — can be improved through various acitivities, Adele Diamond has found:

The best evidence exists for computer-based training, traditional martial arts, and two school curricula. Weaker evidence, though strong enough to pass peer review, exists for aerobics, yoga, mindfulness, and other school curricula. Here I address what can be learned from the research thus far, including that EFs need to be progressively challenged as children improve and that repeated practice is key. Children devote time and effort to activities they love; therefore, EF interventions might use children’s motivation to advantage. Focusing narrowly on EFs or aerobic activity alone appears not to be as efficacious in improving EFs as also addressing children’s emotional, social, and character development (as do martial arts, yoga, and curricula shown to improve EFs). Children with poorer EFs benefit more from training; hence, training might provide them an opportunity to “catch up” with their peers and not be left behind. Remaining questions include how long benefits of EF training last and who benefits most from which activities.

Our Heroes are Back

Sunday, April 20th, 2014

Our Heroes are Back!, the Dutch announce, as all the major pieces return to the Rijksmuseum after a decade of renovations:

(Hat tip to Weapons Man.)

A Master of Timing

Sunday, April 20th, 2014

One of the best-described of all charismatic leaders is Jesus, Randall Collins suggests:

About 90 face-to-face encounters with Jesus are described in the four gospels of the New Testament.

Notice what happens:

Jesus is sitting on the ground, teaching to a crowd in the outer courtyard of the temple at Jerusalem. The Pharisees, righteous upholders of traditional ritual and law, haul before him a woman taken in adultery. They make her stand in front of the crowd and say to Jesus: “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The Law commands us to stone her to death. What do you say?”

The text goes on that Jesus does not look up at them, but continues to write in the dirt with his finger. This would not be unusual; Archimedes wrote geometric figures in the dust, and in the absence of ready writing materials the ground would serve as a chalkboard. The point is that Jesus does not reply right away; he lets them stew in their uneasiness.

Finally he looks up and says: “Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone.” And he looks down and continues writing in the dust.

Minutes go by. One by one, the crowd starts to slip away, the older ones first– the young hotheads being the ones who do the stoning, as in the most primitive parts of the Middle East today.

Finally Jesus is left with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightens up and asks her: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She answers: “No one.” “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus says. “Go now and sin no more.” (John 8: 1-11)

Jesus is a master of timing. He does not allow people to force him into their rhythm, their definition of the situation. He perceives what they are attempting to do, the intention beyond the words. And he makes them shift their ground.

Hence the two periods of tension-filled silence; first when he will not directly answer; second when he looks down again at his writing after telling them who should cast the first stone. He does not allow the encounter to focus on himself against the Pharisees. He knows they are testing him, trying to make him say something in violation of the law; or else back down in front of his followers. Instead Jesus throws it back on their own consciences, their inner reflections about the woman they are going to kill. He individualizes the crowd, making them drift off one by one, breaking up the mob mentality.

Lords Of Light

Saturday, April 19th, 2014

Behold! Lords Of Light: The Thundarr The Barbarian Story:

(Hat tip to Nyrath.)

The Nomad Tribes of Africa

Saturday, April 19th, 2014

Photographer Harry Hook grew up in Kenya and has been documenting the nomad tribes of Africa for decades:

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Dungeons & Dragons & Philosophers

Friday, April 18th, 2014

Dungeons & Dragons & Philosophers features Michel Foucault:

Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophers

Eagle Huntress

Friday, April 18th, 2014

What is best in life?

The open steppe, a fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair.

So, 13-year-old Ashol-Pan might say — although the Mongolian girl hunts with an eagle:

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Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth

Friday, April 18th, 2014

The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth looks at children who took the SAT and scored well at a young age (13 or younger). In the first year, they looked only at math scores. When they broadened their scope, they kept the original name.

Today, many of these precocious youths have grown up to become CEOs, professors at top research universities, transplant surgeons, successful novelists, etc.

Lubinski’s unusually successful cohort was also a lucky group from the start—they participated in the study in the first place because their parents or teachers encouraged them to take the SAT at age 12. Previous research into gifted children has shown that many, or even most of them, aren’t so lucky: They aren’t identified early, and they don’t necessarily get special attention from their schools. Even among Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth participants, the Vanderbilt researchers have previously found that those who weren’t challenged in school were less likely to live up to the potential indicated by their test scores. Other research has shown that under-stimulated gifted students quickly become bored and frustrated—especially if they come from low-income families that are not equipped to provide them with enrichment outside of school.

Tax dollars disproportionately go to help kids with learning disabilities and other disadvantages:

In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which penalizes public schools that don’t bring the lowest-performing students up to grade level. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act regulates special education and provides schools with more than $11 billion annually. A provision of federal education law called Title I allocates some $14 billion to schools that have a higher proportion of students from low-income families, to pay for programs designed to keep them from falling behind.

Helping gifted kids isn’t expensive, and it gets results:

Two recent papers based on data from the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth and published in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that, among young people with off-the-charts ability, those who had been given special accommodations—even modest ones, like being allowed to skip a grade, enroll in special classes, or take college-level courses in high school—went on to publish more academic papers, earn more patents, and pursue higher-level careers than their equally smart peers who didn’t have these opportunities. In one of the studies, the Vanderbilt researchers matched students who skipped a grade with a control group of similarly smart kids who didn’t. The grade-skippers, it turned out, were 60 percent more likely to earn doctorates or patents and more than twice as likely to get a PhD in science, math, or engineering.

“If you look at the control group” in the grade-skipping study, says Lubinski, “they’ll say, ‘The curriculum was moving too slow, I felt bored, I was frustrated.’ Those kids still do better than the norm, but the ones who have their developmental needs met, they do much better.”

But providing these smart kids with an education that matches their abilities is not as straightforward as it sounds. Politically, it raises the fraught question of whether our education system should be in the business of identifying and segregating elite students—an idea that has been tried and rejected before, for good reasons.

For good reasons? Oh, right, for good reasons. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Poor neighborhoods create misfortune and ill health

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

Bad things happen in bad neighborhoods, Duke researchers have rediscovered — although they phrase it this way, Poor neighborhoods create misfortune and ill health:

The study, based on the surveys of 3,105 Chicagoans in 343 city neighborhoods, examined data on 15 life-changing events like being assaulted or robbed, getting divorced, getting into legal trouble and having a child die.

“These are major life events, different than every-day stresses,” King said. “It’s bigger than having your car towed. These are life-changes that could lead to anxiety or depression.”

The study found that residents of poorer neighborhoods who reported one or more of these life-changing events were more likely to also have serious health issues. The reasons are complex, King said. Many of the traumatic events involve exposure to risk, like burglary, legal trouble or an ill or dying child.

Other events involve a lack of resources, like a lost job or long-term illness. And when an entire neighborhood is poor, the risks are more concentrated and resources are harder to access, which is why people struggle to find a new job or get treatment for an illness, King said.

Apparently all these poor neighborhoods were built on ancient Indian burial grounds, bringing terrible luck down on their inhabitants.

What does a medieval literature scholar see in Game of Thrones?

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

Brantley Bryant, associate professor of medieval literature at Sonoma State University, shares, on PBS Newshour, what he sees of The Canterbury Tales, the Morte d’Arthur and Beowulf in HBO’s Game of Thrones:

Manual for Civilization

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

The Long Now Foundation is taking recommendations for their library-sized Manual for Civilization. Kevin Kelly originally called for a Library of Utility:

It would be a very selective library. It would not contain the world’s great literature, or varied accounts of history, or deep knowledge of ethnic wonders, or speculations about the future. It has no records of past news, no children’s books, no tomes on philosophy. It contains only seeds. Seeds of utilitarian know-how. How to recreate the infrastructure and technology of civilization so far.

The idea evolved to include these categories:

  • Cultural Canon (Great Books, Shakespeare, Plato, etc.)
  • Mechanics of Civilization (Technical knowledge, how to build and understand things)
  • Rigorous Science Fiction (Science fiction that tells a useful story about a potential future)
  • Long-term Thinking, Futurism, and relevant history (Books on how to think about the future that may include surveys of the past)

Brian Eno’s recommendations were the first to be shared:

I’m inclined to see Steward Brand’s recommendations as definitive.


Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Exoskel shinguards were designed for low-profile scrambling in urban terrain:

Exoskel™ has been created to assist the user to rapidly ascend urban obstacles. After constantly failing to negotiate obstacles when rushed and weighed down, and after many cuts and damaged lower limbs, Exoskel™ was developed.

Exoskel Dimensions

Its primary use is to provide leverage while ascending obstacles and negotiating uneven terrain. Armed with teeth to lock on to obstacles in any environment, and lift the user, via the stirrup system, up, over, and on… Exoskel™ protects the shin when scrambling over sharp and dangerous terrain and stabilizes the user on uneven ground and in awkward positions.

Exoskel Climbing

The Logic of Perpetual Immigration

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Handle discusses the logic of perpetual immigration:

It seems almost Marxist in the ‘self-destructive cycles of Capital seeking foreign markets’ manner.

  1. To work hard for meager compensation, someone must be born and raised in circumstances within a hand’s breadth of starvation.
  2. But we have made ourselves rich and achieved the goal of ensuring that no one here is raised within a hand’s breadth of starvation.
  3. But that means none of our nation’s children will work hard for meager compensation! That work ethic cannot be taught at school, it must be lived in one’s formative years.
  4. But there is plenty of that near-starvation abroad, with peasants who were harshly trained by impoverished circumstances to work hard for peanuts.
  5. So we will import them here, to make them our Helots.
  6. But then their children will grow up in our rich system, beneficiaries of the apparatus that ensures no one will grow up within a hand’s breadth of starvation.
  7. So we must go on importing, generation after generation.

Alas, the children of helots, who are not fit for anything other than helot work, when brought up without the requisite hard-life-trained work ethic to conduct that helot work, tend to participate in… less socially optimal behavior patterns. The population fraction consisting of ruined-helots and the magnitude of the challenge of dealing with the resulting consequences, therefore, is destined to increase.

Henry Dampier offers another opinion:

Let me contradict you: it can be taught through special measures. That is what boarding school and expectations of military service can help to inculcate (but not in a guaranteed way). Also the entire older ethic of youth sports was arranged around developing boys into well-rounded men. Today the objective of sports is to provide entertaining inventory to advertise against.

If you raise rich kids as rich kids, you get Rich Kids of Instagram. If you take it seriously, on the other hand, you get a class of people who go conquer more than half of the world’s territory.

Also, even in Stoddard’s day, a horde of workers is not as important as the engineers who develop the machines. A horde of workers is also not very useful if they revolt regularly and you need to hire Pinkertons to spy on them and/or kill them when they become unruly.

It is hard to argue against mass importation of helots in a country founded by heretics, convicts, indentures, and other assorted cast-offs.

Democracy is the key difference here, really. Under an aristocratic system, the superior classes have incentives to improve the long term value of their charges. Because they have at least partial ownership stakes in them and the land that they live upon.

Under democracy, no one really owns anything for very long, so the incentive is to rape as much as you can until you are knocked off your perch. Your property rights themselves are highly perishable, and this is one of the main things de Tocqueville remarked upon — America’s early anti-inheritance laws, which have mutated considerably to perform similar functions today in rather different ways.

Handle suggests that work ethic is context-dependent:

There is no lack of work ethic at reasonable high levels of society, plenty of managers in private firms and even in government are driven and ambitious workaholics, often admirable, but sometimes almost pathological. At the top, the competition is fierce, and the striving for money and status intense.

The problem is at the bottom. Teaching people do be voluntarily willing to work hard for peanuts doing low-skill, mind-numbing, back-breaking manual labor, without any ‘higher’ social purpose than mere economic production of low-status commodities (so, not the military), especially when there’s an alternative path to subsistence available, is something that can’t be don’t through anything less than Orwellian levels of brainwashing.

It requires people being brought up in a desperate situation where they felt the chill on their back of the ever-nearby icy fingers of destitution, watched friends and neighbors occasionally fail, and where there was no other choice but to struggle constantly to survive.

Orbital Mechanics

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

The latest xkcd comic, on orbital mechanics, reminds us how powerful simulations are as learning tools:

xkcd Orbital Mechanics